Photo of Ayahuasca by Josh Gross. Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.
Travel almost anywhere through the Amazon rainforest, or fly above it, and you can't miss the demonic madness that's been let loose here — flotillas of tugs heading downriver towing immense rafts of precious hardwoods, great fires blazing and crackling under clouds of smoke, vast areas of cleared land given over to cattle and soya-beans, indigenous ways of life disrupted and destroyed …
It's part of a wider syndrome of human behavior that's become increasingly dominant in the past hundred years and seems to be reaching its peak in the early twenty-first century — an unthinking willingness, coupled with an unprecedented capacity, to squander the greatest treasures stored up for us by nature in exchange for short-term profits and the satisfaction of immediate needs. Included in the syndrome are such follies as the contamination and terminal overfishing of the oceans, a thousand different ways to pollute, destabilize and overheat the global environment, all manner of evil and irrational wars, financial markets operating on crazed and ultimately self-destructive principles, extreme nationalistic and religious hatreds, and widespread poverty and waste of human potential.
I could go on but the point is obvious. Business as usual is not an option if we hope to bequeath any kind of life worth living to our children and grandchildren. We all know this and yet we all, also, feel powerless to stop the bad, stupid and often wicked things being done in our name by our governments and military, by our banks and corporations and, of course, by our own lifestyle choices.
If you can go to the Amazon, as I have been lucky enough to do, and ask traditional tribal shamans what they make of the state of rampant chaos in their sacred rainforest and in the wider world, they will tell you the answer is very simple. Western technological societies, and those that aspire to the Western "dream," have moved so far down the road of gross material culture, and placed so much trust in technology, that they have severed their connection to the spiritual roots of all being. If that connection cannot be restored — quickly — then we're in serious trouble.
Fortunately, say the shamans, they are in a position to offer a remedy.
They know of certain plants, growing deep in the rainforest, whose leaves contain dimethyltryptamine — DMT, for short — the powerful hallucinogen whose extraordinary effects I described in yesterday's essay. Mixed with the pulped inner fibers of a sinuous jungle vine, and boiled in water for a day and a night, these leaves contribute their properties to Ayahuasca (meaning the "Vine of Souls" or "Vine of the Dead") a potent hallucinogenic brew that's been in continuous use amongst the cultures of the Amazon for at least three thousand years. The shamans I've talked to do seriously suggest that adoption of the brew in the West could yet save us, and all humanity, from the spiraling collapse of ecosystems and the growing murmur of insane conflict that our own behavior has unleashed.
The idea is far from as ridiculous as it might at first sound. As I reported yesterday there's already good scientific evidence that the judicious and responsible use of hallucinogens can be life-enhancing and life-changing, banishing the fear of death amongst terminal cancer patients and giving veterans real relief from the damaging effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. If that can be so — and be good science as well — then the shamans could be right, or at least not completely wrong, to suggest Ayahuasca as a remedy for the wider ills of the West.
I've drunk the brew more than thirty times and therefore can tell you on the basis of hard-earned experience that it tastes of old socks, raw sewage, sulphur, battery acid and chocolate. It requires a great effort of will to swallow it and within ninety minutes it usually makes me vomit or gives me diarrhea or both — and these are common experiences for most Ayahuasca drinkers.
But after the vile taste has faded, and even while I'm still enduring the horrible physical side effects, I find myself spirited away to an enchanted universe. There, like Rick Strassman's volunteers in the DMT research described yesterday, I encounter intelligent beings who have teachings to impart to me. Often it's lessons about myself — stuff in my life I need to fix, old habits that no longer serve me, love I need to learn to give better. But sometimes Ayahuasca goes further, and allows me to peep — or so I imagine — into the mysterious nature of reality, and shows me our planet as a haven of light and life, and teaches me that the jungle is sentient and sacred.
Most people who've drunk Ayahuasca report similar experiences, and most regard them as highly significant, deeply convincing and — almost always – positively transformative.
I know how nuts this must sound!
But come back after you've had five sessions of Ayahuasca and tell me if you still feel that way.
You can find the brew everywhere these days, even on the Internet though I do not at all recommend cooking up the ingredients yourself and trying the result at home. Ayahuasca is serious shamanic business and can hit you pretty hard without experienced guidance.
As a matter of fact, it can hit you pretty hard even with a shaman watching over you.
The place to go, if you can, is South America. All the countries surrounding the Amazon basin protect the use of Ayahuasca as a fundamental religious freedom. Its traditional role continues uninterrupted amongst the indigenous peoples of the rainforest, but in Brazil it has emerged from the jungle to take its part in modern syncretistic religions such as the Santo Daime and the Uniao de Vegetal (UdV) — whose ceremonies it is possible to join in all the main cities. In Peru you don't even need to go to an established church but can easily arrange to drink with traditional shamans and curanderos (healers) in the Amazon towns of Iquitos and Pucallpa. Indeed Ayahuasca tourism is becoming an important source of revenue in these areas.
Most of my thirty-plus sessions took place in South America but I've also drunk the brew in the UK, Holland and Japan and know who to contact should I wish to drink with established circles in India, South Africa, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Spain, Canada and the US. Indeed shamanic ceremonies involving the consumption of Ayahuasca are now held in virtually every country in the world. Total numbers of participants have never been counted but may already run into the tens of thousands and are growing fast.
It's something of an underground network because the brew's DMT content makes it an illegal drug in most countries outside the Amazon. One feels a bit like a member of a persecuted Gnostic sect in the fourth century, using codes to communicate, relying on personal introductions and word of mouth to make contact with others who value this sacrament, always aware that the police might arrive at any moment to cart you off to prison. Despite being the home of the War on Drugs, however, with some of the harshest penalties in the world, it is the US, with its constitutional commitment to freedom of religion, that is leading the way in this rapidly widening Western encounter with the sacred vine of the Amazon. In New Mexico and Oregon local chapters of the Uniao de Vegetal and the Santo Daime have already won rulings (in the UdV's case from the Supreme Court) protecting their members' right to drink Ayahuasca and exempting them from federal anti drug laws.
Maybe this is the way the Amazon fights back.
Not with bulldozers or with chainsaws but by sending out its emissary vines across oceans, over mountains, respecting no borders, on a mission to re-enchant the world.
The National Geographic Channel sent a film crew to Peru to shadow a pair of Americans on their quest to try ayahuasca.